I met Pittsburgh-based suburban farmer/chef/author Daniel Agüera on FaceBook. Then one summer day, Daniel told me he and his wife were coming into the city and invited me to meet for breakfast. After that we stayed in touch and so recently, I invited him to talk about bread, food, and beehives.
On your Instagram page it states you are:
Urban farmer, beekeeper, chef, how did you become this multi-skilled, and what describes you best overall?
Chef by training. Farmer by heart. I think I would be a farmer if I could make a good living at it. To me it’s coming full circle: growing the food and bringing it into the kitchen.
What is urban farming?
Farming activities in an urban setting? I have honey bees. They are considered farm livestock. So technically, we farm.
As a Spaniard, what is your favorite Spanish food?
You know, I don’t think of myself first as Spanish, but as Asturian. (Asturias is a region in the north of Spain, west of the Basque country.) People born in the U.S. think they don’t have regional identities in this way until you ask them something like “What is the best pizza,” or “What do you eat for luck in the new year,” and then suddenly they show their regional identity. That’s how closely food is tied to your place and your people. I wouldn’t pick one single favorite. At different times different food memories come to mind, and then that food becomes my favorite. Could be béchamel croquetas, natillas, or even store bought Maria cookies.
How did you get to Pittsburgh from Asturias?
I didn’t come to Pittsburgh directly. I explored the West first. Then after a few years of working with the Mountaineer Football team in West Virginia I moved to Pittsburgh. It’s just up the road.
You’ve authored a book, what was it about?
Simple dishes, food memories. It was a great learning experience. I was fortunate to work with Chris Fennimore, a local food writer and television personality who has celebrated home cooking for many decades in the Pittsburgh area.
How different is it to harvest then shop in a food market? (Currently harder, right?)
Nothing matches up to what comes out of your garden, not now not ever.
As a farmer, seasons do matter, and local has meaning, how does that figure in cooking strategy?
I definitely cook with what becomes available. Every year I work on planting strategy to have more and different things available. I also learn about new ingredients as I grow them in the garden.
What’s your favorite dish?
When someone cooks for me!
But I really don’t have a favorite dish. The ingredients, opportunity, and company in combination make new favorites all the time.
And are you baking now, during this crisis?
I make bread every week. This crisis hasn’t changed my cooking or baking much. I do find myself developing more sourdough recipes now that more people have time and interest for sourdough baking.
Does distancing make you feel like a solo food therapist?
I very much like the fact that more people are cooking at home now. I feel for the current restaurant situation, but at the same time as they reopen they might actually have to compete with some good home cooking.
What’s your outlook and hope after or if this crisis will end, sooner or later?
I had plans for some serious culinary exploration outside the country this summer, so like everybody I am eager for things to go back to normal as soon as possible.
Will this affect, farming, cooking, living, spending, better or worse?
I think instinctively I’m planting and growing more than ever this year. I planted a few specialty ingredients I was asked for by a couple of local restaurants.
If there is a silver lining, some good that could come out of this situation, it would be that everybody recognizes the importance and value of food service workers at every level of our food systems. Agricultural workers, grocery store workers, warehouse workers, truck drivers, cooks. There is a lot of talk now on social media about “front line heroes” providing a lifeline. I hope people don’t forget this mood the next time there is a conversation about whether food workers “deserve” $15 an hour, sick leave, and health care.
Maybe the world will show more appreciation for all these front line workers who continue to do their work no matter what, and those they are missing so much right now who can’t do their jobs because of the pandemic, like restaurateurs, waitstaff, and bartenders.
Are you thinking about a book again?
I’m always thinking about a book or a way to share. If I find the right collaboration, then maybe. I have plenty of ideas.